Former walk-on O'Connell ready to lead Purdue in showdown vs. NU
Last year, Purdue quarterback Aidan O'Connell made his first collegiate start at Northwestern.
Heading into that game, the Boilermakers' record was 3-6, while Northwestern was 1-7.
Those same teams meet Saturday evening in West Lafayette, but this time both sides are undefeated and first place in the Big Ten West is at stake.
Another difference is last year O'Connell was an emergency starter who took over the job after three other quarterbacks were injured or left the program. This season, the Stevenson High School graduate earned the starting spot in preseason camp and has been posting big numbers for Purdue.
It's funny how big games against Northwestern have become a staple for the Long Grove native, who originally walked on at Purdue in 2017.
"I grew up very close to them in terms of distance, but I didn't grow up a Northwestern football fan," O'Connell said via Zoom call. "I had been to a few games just with friends and stuff. But never grew up a huge fan.
"(Last year's game at NU) was a great day. I had I don't even know how many friends and family at the game. I really didn't play that exceptionally well. I had a lot of mistakes. In watching the film now, you see all the mistakes that I made."
O'Connell has also made a habit of pulling out close games at Purdue. He led the Boilers on a late drive in Evanston last fall to set up J.D. Dellinger's 39-yard field goal with three seconds left, giving Purdue a 24-22 victory.
The previous week, O'Connell came in late after starter Jack Plummer suffered a broken ankle and led the Boilermakers on a game-winning 62-yard drive against Nebraska.
Already this season, he threw a 6-yard TD pass to David Bell with 2:15 remaining, giving Purdue a 24-20 victory over Iowa on Oct. 24. The following week, O'Connell threw for 371 yards in a 24-17 win at Illinois.
"A clutch player," Bell said of O'Connell. "Some players crumble under pressure, but I think he enjoys it and thrives under it."
He has five college starts and three fourth-quarter comebacks under his belt, but O'Connell tries to take the late-game heroics in stride.
"I just try to put my team in the best position we can to win," he said. "In some of those games, if I had just played better earlier on, we probably wouldn't have been in the position that we needed to come back and win."
O'Connell was overlooked coming our of high school, mostly because he didn't start until his senior year at Stevenson and still needed to put on weight. Renowned quarterbacks coach Jeff Christensen recommended O'Connell to Purdue coach Jeff Brohm. Walk-on success stories are always fun, but it's not an easy path.
"Looking back on it now, it seems like a flash, but it was a long time," O'Connell said. "There were a lot of days of doubt. It's a difficult game, football is. When you come to a school like this where there's great players around you that you've got to compete with, it's a challenge.
"There were some hard times and there were some lonely times, but I always loved the game and if nothing else, I knew that. So I kind of let that just carry me and motivate me."
Purdue (2-0) was supposed to play at Wisconsin last weekend, but that game was canceled due to a coronavirus outbreak in Madison. Since the Purdue-Wisconsin game won't be made up, this week's game has added importance, especially for Northwestern.
O'Connell is on pace to earn his degree in management this fall, so he's taking just two classes, which allows for more time to study film and prepare for games. He thinks that fact, plus getting on the field last year, helped push his game forward.
"I think those game reps are priceless," he said. "Those game reps where you're thrown into the fire, you learn what throws you can make, what throws you can't make. How fast you need to make decisions.
"I think being able to play in some games and preparing like I was going to play and then finally getting that chance, I think gave me a lot of confidence and I'm super thankful for that experience."
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